Suffolk resident helps dig history

Published 10:11 pm Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Suffolk resident is helping make history at an internationally renowned archeological site.

Lake Prince Woods retirement community held a presentation on the Ness of Brodgar excavations Monday evening. Resident Martha Johnson spends most of the year in Orkney, Scotland with Nick Card, the director of the Ness of Brodgar excavations and the evening’s presenter.

“It’s great to let people know about Martha’s hidden side,” Card said.

Email newsletter signup

The Ness of Brodgar is in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Scotland. Excavations at the site began in 2003, and test pits revealed massive stone structures and other spectacular findings in more than six acres.

“Every year I said we weren’t going to extend the trenches, but we inevitably do, because there’s always more,” Card said.

Structures of “exceptional stonework” and size were discovered, he said. The carefully planned and well-constructed structures contained stones of different colors for interiors, and indications of “the earliest evidence in the world of a regular roofing system.”

“All of this was created without metal tools,” Card said.

Hundreds of rare Neolithic artifacts were discovered, such as hundreds of carved stone balls, a polished stone axe that “felt like silk,” and beads made of Amber from the Baltic, not native to Orkney.

“It seemed to attract material from far and away,” Card said.

He said carbon dating at the site goes as far back as 3,500 B.C.

“That’s much older than the pyramids,” he said.

The excavations bring more than a hundred workers annually. The 2017 excavations will be from July 3 to Aug. 25, and the rest of the year is spent analyzing findings. Visitors come from all around the world for free guided tours and other activities.

“It’s not just there for archaeology,” Card said. “It’s there for everyone to enjoy.”

Johnson first visited the site in 2008, then began volunteering in 2009 by assisting in the geological research of more than 3,500 rock samples.

“My father was a geologist,” she said. “It’s sort of a family profession.”

She was a school administrator and earth science teacher at Deep Creek Middle School for 34 years before volunteering in Scotland. She said it’s a welcome change of pace to work at “Britain’s ancient capital.”

“This lets me apply a different skillset to something I’m interested in,” she said.

Card described her work as “indispensable.”

“Martha’s just been a huge asset to the excavation,” he said. “We’re becoming the leader on the integration of geology in archaeology, and her work is indispensable.”

More than 70 residents attended the lecture. Some were intrigued to find out more about what their fellow resident had been doing overseas for years.

“We were all interested in what was going on over there and what she was involved with,” resident Lynn Nelson said. “I’m impressed by her work and her dedication.”

Johnson said she is also involved with fundraising for the excavations, helping found the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar charity. Each season of digging costs more than $200,000, with more costs generated by studies the rest of the year.

The aim is to build public awareness of the site and keep the excavation funded. “I’ll keep on digging for as long as I keep receiving funds,” Card said.

Johnson plans to do the same.

“Ninety percent of it is still under the earth, and I’m curious to see what we’re going to find,” she said.